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South by Southwest

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

This month, the music industry went to Austin, Texas. It-s a bit like a rite of passage. Every March, a music business conference called South by Southwest opens its doors to thousands of professionals to get together and showcase new and early talent. Most often, the conference spotlights music in rock, pop, funk, punk, folk, and roots. The focus is not always on the most commercial artists, but rather on some of the most interesting.

Record labels, journalists, radio programmers, on line magazines, record stores and distribution companies from around the world all come to the event.

When the conference first started 16 years ago, it quickly became the place to see unsigned and developing talent. A&R; departments are usually the folks who discover new talent at labels, and South by Southwest attracted entire departments of A&R.;

But the conference became too unfocused in my opinion. Major labels, which recognized the power of a good performance there, began to route their priority artists to Austin. Instead of watching a majority of unsigned artists, A&R; folks found themselves wading through tons of already signed and not so interesting developed acts.

The organizers got it back on track this year, with an outstanding array of unsigned and early talent performing. Every significant independent label and most major labels were in attendance and the music choices were exciting and relevant. Scottish newcomers like Franz Ferdinand grabbed everyone-s attention, with Top 5 sales from the UK leading the charge, and debut artist Nellie McKay also solidified her strong buzz foundation with the industry gatekeepers. These are probably two of the hottest records out right now. Singer songwriter Mindy Smith wowed a standing room only audience, and up and coming unknowns like the Brooklyn Dresden Dolls, captured the top spot for many journalists. There were so many dynamic showcases, that folks spent most of the last two days comparing notes on what they had just seen.

The truth is, it-s impossible to attend SXSW without becoming overwhelmed. Between the official and unofficial showcases, over 2,000 bands perform over a five day period, in a 10 block area. Every bar, coffee house, restaurant, parking lot, rooftop and store with a platform can become a showcase spot during SXSW. In addition to the live performances, they also provide a conference for the 9,000 attendees during the day. The whole event is amazing and exhausting and in spite of that, it revitalizes most everyone who attends.

As I was walking through a crowded Austin street, with the sound of dozens of rock bands blaring out from their showcases, and hundreds of people milling around, I heard the sound of a single cello, breaking through. It was mesmerizing. I turned from my prescribed route and instead walked into an outdoor showcase by a solo artist named Erik Friedlander. A lone man and his electric cello on an outdoor stage, in the middle of sonic mayhem, he had stopped traffic with his single, solitary bow.

No vocals, just great performance.

Two hundred fifty worldly tastemakers stopped dead in their tracks for a concert of classical music in the middle of SXSW. But a great performance is a great performance. And though Erik-s music may not make it to the top of the pop charts, there-s plenty of room in the hearts and minds of music lovers. The star making machine is not the only game in town. Every time I go to SXSW, I am reminded of that.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

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